Hello folks, and welcome back to Wrong Every Time. Today I’m eager to return to The Legend of Vox Machina, and perhaps glean another tip or two to carry back to my own tabletop misadventures. To be honest, things have actually been moving quite smoothly in my campaign; we reached my invented capital city a few sessions ago, and the players have since then been having a great time exploring this playground of bounties, quests, and colosseum challenges I’ve built for them. I’m too much of a narrative-minded guy and too poor at improvising to provide a truly open-ended sandbox, but I think we’ve hit a good compromise between freedom and guide rails, and my individual encounter design sensibilities are improving all the time.
As for the hapless members of Vox Machina, we last left off on a moment of shocking betrayal, as Cassandra sided with the Briarwoods over her long-lost brother. It seems beyond question that this is in some part a result of the Briarwoods’ foul sorceries, but it’s nonetheless a bold play by Mercer. Within the list of Possible Complications offered in the Dungeon Master’s Guide, “the party is betrayed by a former ally” is the only entry complimented by “(use this one sparingly)”, and for good reason – if the party begins to believe they can’t trust any of the characters around them, or that established characterization might be reversed at a whim, their investment in the world will drop precipitously. That’s obviously not going to be a problem with a committed group like this, but it’s an example of a conceit where exploiting it simply to increase dramatic volume might actually provoke the opposite effect. Player investment in non-player characters is hard-earned, so think twice before you betray that trust!
Alright, that’s more than enough narrative design preamble. Let’s get back to the action!
“Whispers at the Ziggurat” hell yeah I love a good ziggurat
We open on a generous, eerily lit establishing shot of our titular ziggurat. Perhaps Vox Machina’s biggest aesthetic issue is that the show is simply too damn dark most of the time; there’s too narrow and obscured a spectrum of lighting within most of its night shots, which harms not just the overall impact and beauty of its compositions, but also the audience’s ability to simply parse what is going on. Hopefully this eerie green light will keep things reasonably well-lit for the conflict to come
Delilah mentions that “the celestial alignment is almost complete.” Celestial alignments are handy timers for dungeon masters; not only can the party do absolutely nothing to halt their fruition, but they also aren’t tethered to any cycles the party can actively recognize, like the waxing of the moon or time of day. As such, there’s little risk of the party, say, accidentally sleeping through or being imprisoned while the ritual commences (unless the DM wishes that to be so), because the alignment can trigger at whichever moment the DM feels is most dramatically appropriate
The ziggurat is infused with glowing magical energy! Even better lighting!
Upon seeing the ziggurat, Scanlan has a key flash of insight, connecting Delilah’s tome to the star charts and “The Whispered One.” This is basically the opposite situation – a DM has very little control over players organically connecting your story’s dots, necessitating the weaving in of increasingly clear and undeniable pieces of evidence. For all that, the surest way to guarantee your party will solve a mystery is to have a member of that party actually getting invested in the mystery, so gameplay like this is very party-dependent, requiring specific player interests to work. My own party has basically trampled over every “narrative clue” I’ve left in search of more monsters to fight, so I’ve had to adjust my storytelling methods accordingly
Oh, I love this. I assume this was played as a series of religion and nature checks on the board, but it comes across very organically that Pike would be able to provide the identity of the undead Whispered One, while Keyleth would understand that this ritual is making use of the solstice. Playing to their intellectual specialties, not just their physical ones
The Briarwoods are a very efficient pair of villains – they are clearly, deeply in love with each other, giving them a motivation that’s very human and understandable, but still not sympathetic. They are neither evil for evil’s sake nor needlessly complicated
And Ripley makes her escape, prompting some serious disagreements between Percy and his evil spirit. Even in moments like this, Percy demonstrates a commitment to narrative and roleplaying that sets him at the far end of player involvement from someone like Grog. A Percy at your table is a rare and valuable thing
Ooh, some nice effects animation for Delilah firing beams of black lightning
Meanwhile, Vex takes on her mind-controlled brother. The twins have always been two of this party’s most reliably invested roleplayers, and this seems like a very fun reward for that investment, allowing them to play out the unique mechanical/roleplay challenge of actually smashing their abilities and personalities against each other
Yeah, the animation, fight choreography, and storyboarding of this encounter are all a major step up from the show’s usual standard. Happy to see the show ending on a strong note, and actually realizing in motion the unique dynamics of something like a vampire and druid trading blows
At its best, this show’s fight choreography is wonderfully expressive in demonstrating how mismatched opponents might cross swords. Seeing Pike dance all around a target three times her size, dodging what she can and leaning into the momentum of what she can’t, is delightful
Also delighted to see the show simply refuses to use CG models for its main characters. Such stand-ins almost always look atrocious, and I’d pretty much universally prefer the lack of an action sequence over one that relies on unconvincing CG
“You abandoned me, but the Whispered One won’t!” Mercer’s towing an interesting line here with Cassandra; rather than having her be fully mind-controlled, he’s leaning towards the more emotionally interesting idea of the Briarwoods simply giving her a mental push, that she might lean into the natural feelings of rejection and resentment she already possesses. That’s a lot more interesting in a character sense than total mind control
Even some great comedy character acting as Scanlan dodges Delilah’s bolts! This is an exceedingly generous episode
The next action sequence demonstrates precisely what CG actually is good at, as Pike and Sylas exchange strikes all across the ziggurat, its CG form allowing the camera to dodge and swoop alongside the characters. With the combatants in the foreground drawing the audience’s focus, the CG’s visual limitations are much less obvious, while its effectiveness in freeing the camera’s eye makes for a significantly more dynamic sequence
Percy’s cries of pain awaken Cassandra’s memories of their time together. I love this composition as Percy falls, with his errant glasses forming a circular frame around Silas as the action shifts towards him. Just plain excellent storyboarding all through this episode
With the party on the brink of defeat, Keyleth realizes that here in these depths, she can connect directly to the roots of the Sun Tree. Another moment where I’m curious about how it was realized in gameplay; “the party is rescued by a new development in the nick of time” is classic storytelling, but in gameplay, it can parse as “all those tough battles you were fighting were actually irrelevant, since you were always going to be saved by deus ex machina.” It’s a tricky thing, balancing a sense of genuine threat, narrative surprise, and players’ mechanical agency
It’s actually handled quite gracefully here, with Keyleth merely offering the party a moment to get their bearings, rather than solving their fights for them
In an oddly charming moment, Vex quite literally beats some sense back into her brother
And at last, Pike’s counteroffensive breaks Delilah’s concentration, removing her Silence effect on Scanlan. That must have been an annoying set of turns for him!
While other characters pair off in battle according to their emotional journeys, Grog settles for a rematch with Silas. A fine way to give him something approaching a “destined fight” in spite of his lack of emotional ties to this situation
And as with the Pike-Sylas battle, it’s delightful to see the clear contrasts in how they approach their opponents. Grog is simply too broad in his movements to land a hit on Sylas
“If I don’t know where I’m swinging, then neither will you!” An incredible deduction by Grog, leading into a meaty blow right in Sylas’ gut
And Sylas is utterly obliterated by Keyleth’s sunbeam. Impressive effects animation all throughout
Thus we swiftly move into the second phase of this classic style of action climax: after having defeated the summoners of some terrible evil, we must contend with the evil they unearthed in their final breaths. Another fun way to play this is to have that terrible evil consume its nearly-defeated summoners, thereby demonstrating the much larger threat it represents
And once again, the fate of the world rests on Vax’s ability to pick a lock. Funny how that works
Keyleth takes a lethal blow intended for Vex, completing her arc of gaining Vex’s trust!
Hot damn was that a generous episode! This show tends to be somewhat middle-of-the-road in terms of its animation, but that was a feast from start to finish, unerringly exemplifying the weighted movements and thoughtful choreography of Vox Machina at its visual best. Heck, this episode’s peaks pretty easily eclipsed everything outside of the show’s opening, with sequences like Pike and Sylas’ bout demonstrating a fantastic melding of storyboarding, CG implementation, and traditional animation. In game design terms, this episode also did an impressive job of presenting every member of Vox Machina with their own character- and proficiency-specific challenges, making this feel like a genuine ensemble victory while still effectively spotlighting our current focus characters. Vox Machina has never looked better, and I’m eager to see what the finale has in store!
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